New Form of Physical Therapy: Wii Games

CHICAGO (AP) – Some call it “Wiihabilitation.”Nintendo’s Wii video game system, whose popularity already extends beyond theteen gaming set, is fast becoming a craze in rehab therapy for patientsrecovering from strokes, broken bones, surgery and even combat injuries.

The usual stretching and lifting exercises that help thesick or injured regain strength can be painful, repetitive and downrightboring.

In fact, many patients say PT – physical therapy’snickname – really stands for “pain and torture,” said James Osborn, whooversees rehabilitation services at Herrin Hospital in southern Illinois.

Using the game console’s unique, motion-sensitivecontroller, Wii games require body movements similar to traditional therapyexercises. But patients become so engrossed mentally they’re almost obliviousto the rigor, Osborn said.

“In the Wii system, because it’s kind of a gameformat, it does create this kind of inner competitiveness. Even though you maybe boxing or playing tennis against some figure on the screen, it’s amazing howmany of our patients want to beat their opponent,” said Osborn of SouthernIllinois Healthcare, which includes the hospital in Herrin. The hospital, about100 miles southeast of St. Louis, bought a Wii system for rehab patients latelast year.

“When people can refocus their attention from thetediousness of the physical task, oftentimes they do much better,” Osbornsaid.

Nintendo Co. doesn’t market Wii’s potential use inphysical therapy, but company representative Anka Dolecki said, “We are happyto see that people are finding added benefit in rehabilitation.”

The most popular Wii games in rehab involve sports – baseball, bowling, boxing, golf and tennis. Using the same arm swings requiredby those sports, players wave a wireless controller that directs the actions ofanimated athletes on the screen.

The Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital west of Chicagorecently bought a Wii system for its spinal cord injury unit.

Pfc. Matthew Turpen, 22, paralyzed from the chest down ina car accident last year while stationed in Germany, plays Wii golf and bowlingfrom his wheelchair at Hines. The Des Moines, Iowa, native says the games helpbeat the monotony of rehab and seem to be doing his body good, too.

“A lot of guys don’t have full finger function so itdefinitely helps being able to work on using your fingers more and figuring outdifferent ways to use your hands” and arms, Turpen said.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the therapy iswell-suited to patients injured during combat in Iraq, who tend to be in the 19to 25 age range – a group that’s “very into” playing video games, saidLt. Col. Stephanie Daugherty, Walter Reed’s chief of occupational therapy.

“They think it’s for entertainment, but we know it’sfor therapy,” she said.

It’s useful in occupational therapy, which helps patientsrelearn daily living skills including brushing teeth, combing hair andfastening clothes, Daugherty said.

WakeMed Health has been using Wii games at its Raleigh,N.C., hospital for patients as young as 9 “all the way up to people intheir 80s,” said therapist Elizabeth Penny.

“They’re getting improved endurance, strength,coordination. I think it’s very entertaining for them,” Penny said.

“It really helps the body to loosen up so it can dowhat it’s supposed to do,” said Billy Perry, 64, a retired Raleigh policeofficer. He received Wii therapy at WakeMed after suffering a stroke onChristmas Eve.

Perry said he’d seen his grandchildren play Wii games andwas excited when a hospital therapist suggested he try it.

He said Wii tennis and boxing helped him regain strengthand feeling in his left arm.

“It’s enjoyable. I know I’m going to participatewith my grandkids more when I go visit them,” Perry said.

While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that Wii gameshelp in rehab, researcher Lars Oddsson wants to put the games to a real test.

Oddsson is director of the Sister Kenny Research Centerat Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. The center bought a Wii systemlast summer and is working with the University of Minnesota to design a studythat will measure patients’ function “before and after this ‘Wiihab,’ assomeone called it,” Oddsson said.

“You can certainly make a case that some form ofendurance related to strength and flexibility and balance and cardio would bechallenged when you play the Wii,” but hard scientific proof is needed toprove it, Oddsson said.

Meantime, Dr. Julio Bonis of Madrid says he has proofthat playing Wii games can have physical effects of another kind.

Bonis calls it acute “Wiiitis” – a condition hesays he developed last year after spending several hours playing the Wii tennisgame.

Bonis described his ailment in a letter to the NewEngland Journal of Medicine – intense pain in his right shoulder that acolleague diagnosed as acute tendonitis, a not uncommon affliction amongplayers of real-life tennis.

Bonis said he recovered after a week of ibuprofen and noWii, and urged doctors to be aware of Wii overuse.

Still, as a Wii fan, he said in an e-mail that he couldimagine more moderate use would be helpful in physical therapy “because ofthe motivation that the game can provide to the patient.”

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